Trying to string together consecutive reps on toes-to-bar?
Whether you’re a beginner or a CrossFit veteran, you may be asking yourself, “Why can’t I get more than one rep at a time?”
Or, “Why am I swinging all over the place?”
Or even, “Why can’t I do toes-to-bar?”
Searching for the answer online can lead to all kinds of random drills (that require you to rig up six different bands and two plyo boxes) or lame, contextless cues to “stay tight”. But how does that really help you? How do you figure out what to focus on?
Through coaching thousands of athletes, we have some insight into what matters and what doesn’t for improving kipping toes-to-bar.
What does matter?
What doesn’t matter?
• Being super strong (strength is only part of the equation)
• Having rock hard abs
• Being a professional CrossFit athlete.
The equation for an athlete to get consecutive toes-to-bar reps looks like this:
Strength + Mobility + Technique (Particularly Rhythm & Timing) = Consecutive Toes-to-bar Reps
We’ve identified the six most common reasons why athletes tend to struggle with linking toes-to-bar reps.
Click below to skip to the section that applies to you:
- Inadequate Eccentric Strength in the Abs and Shoulders
- Poor Hip Mobility Can Make it Really Hard to get your Toes to the Bar
- Difficulty Creating the Proper “Layback” Position
- Trying Too Hard
- Swinging the Legs Rather than Kipping through the Shoulders
- Improper Hip Position when the Toes Make Contact with the Bar
Note that – while you may struggle with more than one of these – it’s important to recognize which piece is the limiting factor. If you don’t have adequate strength to control yourself on the backswing from your first rep, it doesn’t really matter how much technique work you do. You’ve got to get stronger first!
Also, figuring out the progression that will lead to you being able to string together toes-to-bar isn’t going to come from a few tips applied intermittently or episodically. It’s going to come from consistent effort and iteration so that you’re always pushing yourself just outside of your current comfort zone with the movement.
INADEQUATE ECCENTRIC STRENGTH IN THE ABS AND SHOULDERS TO CONTROL THE SWING DURING TOES-TO-BAR
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
If you’re not strong enough to control the positions necessary for stringing together consecutive reps on toes-to-bar, you’re going to have to get stronger before your technique work will pay off.
The backswing of the kip heavily utilizes the stretch reflex through the shoulders and the core to “snap” an athlete back into position to make contact with the bar.
However, if there is no eccentric control (meaning the ability to control the “lowering” phase of the movement), it’s very difficult to “catch” any of that energy as you’re coming down. So, rather than snapping back up to the bar like a rubber band, an athlete will feel “clunky” or “loose” as they hit the backswing on their second attempt.
Think of this like a rebounding box jump.
If you’ve been doing CrossFit for some amount of time, you’ve probably disregarded the long-term interests of your Achilles tendons and done your fair share of rebounding box jumps off of a 24″ or 20″ box. And, you may even be able to do a rebounding box jump off of a 30″ box.
However, if I asked you to do a rebounding box jump off of a 50″ box, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to do it.
The force that we’re asking your leg muscles and connective tissues to absorb when jumping off of 50″ is simply too much to be controlled effectively and turned around into another jump.
We see the exact same thing on toes-to-bar.
Some athletes have no problem stringing together hanging leg raises or “toes almost to bar.” However, when they attempt to control the swing from a true toes-to-bar, the force is too high for them to control the bottom position.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION FOR BUILDING STRENGTH FOR TOES-TO-BAR?
So, what can we do to build the eccentric strength to properly control the backswing of the kip in a full toes-to-bar?
Isometric work and strict toes-to-bar variations tend to be the best way to build this strength.
By slowing down and “owning” each phase of the movement, it will be easier to control the lowering phase when we make the movement more dynamic through kipping.
Step 1 – Seated Straight Leg Lift
Sit on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you. Place your hands on the ground and lift your legs up, around 6-9″ off the ground. Work on these until you can perform 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps without needing to break. Once you’ve mastered these move on to step 2.
Step 2 – Bar L Hang
Hang from the bar and bring both feet up together until your legs are parallel to the ground. Work to hold a very slight hollow position through your core with your legs stationary in front of you. Work 2-3 times per week to accumulate 1:00-1:30. Once you’re able to accumulate 1:30 in no more than 3 sets move on to step 3.
Step 3 – Strict Toes to Bar Negatives
While hanging from the bar kip your toes up to make contact with the bar. When they reach the top control the decent taking a :05 count to lower them, at an even pace, until you’re hanging back at full extension. Work 4-5 sets of 3 reps until you have an even tempo and perfect control, then move to step 3.
Step 4 – Strict Toes to Bar
Hang from the bar and without kipping or reaching your feet behind you, pull your toes up to make contact with the bar and lower down with control. Your feet should never come behind the bar. Work until you can hit 3 sets of 5+ perfect reps
If you can do solid sets of strict toes-to-bar, you can be relatively certain that lack of eccentric strength and control is not your limiting factor in terms of stringing together multiple reps.
POOR HIP MOBILITY AND RANGE OF MOTION CAN MAKE IT REALLY HARD TO GET YOUR TOES TO THE BAR
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
In order to get the toes to make contact with the bar, we need significant amounts of hip flexion.
Some people will feel like their hamstrings are too “tight” to do toes-to-bar.
Others will get some pretty wild situations where their knees bend way out and they do some sort of complicated curling mess to get their toes to the bar.
What’s usually happening in both of these situations is that the athlete is lacking either range of motion or motor control over hip flexion (the ability to bring the knees to the chest).
While a detailed discussion on hip flexion is out of the scope of this article, it is important to understand that – if you have inadequate range of motion or an inability to access your range of motion – you will be fighting your own body every step of the way as you try to improve your capacity on toes-to-bar.
For some quick ideas on assessing hip flexion range of motion, check out Adam Kelly’s video following the SFMA (Selective Functional Movement Assessment) protocol for multi-segmental flexion dysfunction.
HOW CAN WE IMPROVE HIP FLEXION RANGE OF MOTION FOR TOES-TO-BAR?
Suffice it to say, if you have a hard time touching both of your thighs to your chest while laying on your back, you are going to have a hard time smoothly making contact with the bar during toes-to-bar.
If this is you, your best bet is to find a local therapist who can perform a detailed evaluation on you and suggest a treatment plan.
If you don’t have access to a qualified therapist, I hesitate to make recommendations for movement issues in a blanket sense, but some of these drills will probably be helpful for you and are unlikely to do harm.
Most people who are struggling to create end range of motion hip flexion will randomly stretch their hamstrings and their hip flexors.
While there is a time and a place for stretching, this is probably not the best use of your time for improving range of motion and motor control in the hips.
Instead, most people need to figure out how to get their pelvis to rest in a neutral position and gain motor control over the hips without excessive gripping in the hip musculature or tilting of the pelvis (either posteriorly or anteriorly).
Again, this is a complicated issue, but a quick routine focused on the following exercises as a warm-up and/or a cool down is probably safe for most individuals and may help.
Standing Reverse Reach – 3 sets of 5 deep breaths
The goal of this exercise is to reposition the pelvis and the spine and to inhibit some of the musculature that tends to pull athletes into an overextended position. This overextended position makes it very difficult to have good motor control over the hips and the pelvis.
Dead Bugs – 3 sets of 10 alternating reps
The dead bug is a favorite and a simple way to work on controlling the pelvis and the ribcage through the breath and the anterior core.
Don’t think of this as a “strengthening exercise” so much as “practicing the ability to control the ribcage and pelvis under load.”
Cook Hip Lift – 3 sets of 8/side
The Cook Hip Lift is intended to create better motor control of the hips by locking the lumbar spine in position (to avoid extending and flexing through the back instead of through the hips).
Since one hip is moving into extension while the other is held in flexion, this is a neurologically challenging exercise and can create a much better intuitive control of the hip joints.
Hip Controlled Articular Rotations – 3 sets of 3/side in each direction
The goal of the hip controlled articular rotations is to give your brain feedback on your hip joints and develop motor control over the area.
By moving the hip through full range of motion in both directions, we are essentially building a more robust and adaptable map of the hip joint which can help better control the joint through its range of motion.
Note that – especially if you have any pinching or irritation in the hips – the goal is not to push into pain. If you feel discomfort doing this exercise, stop short of the range of motion that creates the pain sensation.
While inadequate hip range of motion or motor control is often a persistent and frustrating issue, this is at least a starting point for improving your ability to access end range of motion hip flexion.
DIFFICULTY CREATING THE PROPER “LAYBACK” POSITION TO BRING THE TOES TO THE BAR
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
Many people think of the toes-to-bar as an “ab” exercise. And, to be fair, most people will feel this in their abs as they do a lot of reps.
However, for athletes who struggle to link reps together or who struggle to actually make contact with the bar with their toes, they’re often missing the ability to tilt their torso backwards through their shoulders as they get their toes up to the bar.
This can leave them in the position where they’re kicking their feet high in the air – but just missing the bar itself.
HOW DO WE IMPROVE TORSO POSITION FOR KIPPING TOES-TO-BAR?
In order to create the proper torso angle, the shoulders must actually move into extension – which means that the shoulder angle closes and the athlete’s torso tilts backward (so that they’re looking more at the ceiling) as the kick up to make contact with the bar.
The common cue of “push down on the bar” often heard in pull-ups or bar muscle-ups is equally applicable here. If an athlete is not engaging the shoulder extensors (mostly the lats, but also triceps and the teres minor and major), they will simply not be at an appropriate angle to be able to make contact with the bar.
In some athletes – particularly those who have a tendency towards hypermobility – we will see an interesting phenomenon where they are able to create solid layback through the shoulders and solid hip flexion from a hanging position, but are seemingly incapable of doing both simultaneously.
What may be happening here is that those athletes do not have solid control over the layback position, so they are getting some type of inhibition or “shut off” of their hip flexors and abs which prevents them from creating hip flexion.
In order to work on this, try doing some drills on the bar where you focus on pushing “down” on the bar to tilt the torso backwards while bringing the knees up.
YOU’RE TRYING TOO HARD WHEN DOING YOUR TOES-TO-BAR
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
Lack of effort is often not a problem in CrossFit gyms.
There are few places where you can find a group of people more eager to push themselves to absolute failure during a training session.
Flopping around on the ground after a conditioning session? Awesome.
Grunting, grinding, and popping blood vessels in your forehead while hitting an 8RM back squat? Incredible.
While the ability to “try hard” is certainly valuable, it’s often overdone during technical movements like toes-to-bar.
In order to get a good kipping rhythm, there is a balance between tension and relaxation. Being too relaxed at the wrong time will make the movement sloppy and loose, and being too tense at the wrong point will make the movement grindy and awkward.
Many athletes feel that they have to create maximum tension to get their toes to the bar. And, in some cases, they do.
However, if each rep is involving maximum contraction, there’s almost no chance of finding a smooth, rhythmic kip.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO LEARN TO RELAX DURING KIPPING TOES-TO-BAR?
To work on this, the best thing to do is to scale the movement back to a degree of difficulty where it can be completed successfully and smoothly without excessive gripping.
A good rule of thumb to use here is that you should be able to complete the movement without making “exertion faces.”
It’s also often tricky for these individuals to understand that “more effort” doesn’t always mean “better workout.”
Taking a step back from maximum tension on every rep in order to improve technique and efficiency will indeed make you better in the long run.
And, while this seems obvious on paper, there’s often an emotional component where athletes feel like they’re not maximizing their training sessions if they’re not trying as hard as possible the entire time. Sorry to call you out in a blog post, but it’s often true. The only real advice I have is “quit being a maniac” – and also consider taking up a meditation practice.
If you want to work on relaxing more through the toes-to-bar, practice in sets of 5 to a height at which you can maintain a smooth, rhythmic feeling.
If you can hit a set of 5, try to kick your feet a little bit higher on your next set. You will find a threshold past which you lose the rhythm of the movement and start “grinding” reps again.
The goal will be to play around near this edge and keep dancing above and below it in sets of 5. You will find that your control of the movement will change day-to-day, but – within a few weeks of consistent practice – you should see significant progress.
IMPROPER HIP POSITION WHEN THE TOES MAKE CONTACT WITH THE BAR
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
For many people, the first rep of their set of toes-to-bar sets them up for failure when they try to string together their second rep.
To keep the timing and rhythm of the kip, the athlete needs to make contact with the bar while their hips are still behind the bar.
If the hips drift in front of the bar while contact is being made, they’re not able to then direct their hips forward when the feet come back behind the bar in the kip.
This results in a full body swing and the feeling that they’re not strong enough to string reps together.
Check out the video below to see the difference in hip positions:
HOW TO FIX BODY POSITION TO STRING TOGETHER TOES-TO-BAR
Take some video! Sometimes it can be hard to appreciate your body position during movements, but by filming yourself you can get a better understanding of your position.
If you have the requisite strength and mobility (as detailed above), simply changing your hip position as you make contact with the bar can be a game changer.
SWINGING THE LEGS RATHER THAN KIPPING THROUGH THE SHOULDERS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TOES-TO-BAR
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
The most obvious part of the body moving during a kipping toes-to-bar is the legs.
They swing way back at the bottom of the movement – and, in some athletes, end up doing a crazy scorpion kick and almost hitting them in the back of the head.
Then, those legs fly up to bring the toes to the bar.
However, the toes-to-bar, when done properly, is really a delicate dance between the shoulders, the hips, and the knees.
Many athletes attempt to “fling” themselves at the bar using their hips, their knees, and their low back. But, they fail to understand how to get the shoulders involved in the movement which often leaves them struggling to make consistent contact with the bar.
HOW TO DEVELOP PROPER KIPPING MECHANICS FOR TOES-TO-BAR
In some cases, this is a substitute for inadequate strength.
In other cases, this is a misconception surrounding the mechanics of the movement.
Check out this breakdown of how to build the kip from the ground up focusing on the shoulders and the hips – rather than just swinging the legs.
– To work on your kip start from a dead hang position with feet together and your toes pointed. Imagine you’re trying to get your toes as far away from your hands as you can and squeeze your feet together.
– From there you’re going to work on a very small hollow to arch movement, allowing your feet to move about 12″ to start with.
– If you can maintain your rhythm then increase the distance of the kip, still focusing on pointing your toes. You should find you create some great tension and power from your hips and shoulder in this position.
– Work on pulling down on the bar as your feet come out in front of you, imagine you’re trying to pull the bar down to your toes. You should find you create a deep hollow position with your torso behind the bar.
– Increase the power of the kip and actively pull your feet high as they move in front of the bar.
– As your feet get higher, work to pull your torso and hips behind the bar as this allows more range of motion without increasing hamstring flexibility which can sometimes inhibit range of motion
While there’s potentially dozens of potential reasons that you could be struggling with linking together consecutive toes-to-bar, the most important thing to do is figure out what your individual limiting factor is and come up with a plan of attack to improve that issue.
The 6 faults above are the most common ones that we see – but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more.
If you feel like you’re stuck and frustrated, you may be prioritizing the wrong toes-to-bar drills – or you may just not be patient enough to see progress. It’s always difficult to strike the right balance between persistence and consistency, and foolish stubbornness and determination.